Friday, April 12, 2013

Top 10 Gilded Age Primary Sources

Here are my top 10 favorite primary sources of the Gilded Age (1877-1900). Please let me know your

1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907). The grandson and great grandson of presidents, Adams had no use of an age that pushed him to the side with no afterthought. His "education" was in learning his place in this new and ever changing world. This very personal quest combined with the author's sharp and cutting wit give The Education its value as an historical text. On the hand, it also explains the book's serious limitations. For a lack of a better phrase it is full of piss and vinegar and has very little positive to say on the age or many of the people in it. In that sense it is like reading Allen Nevins's biography of Hamilton Fish or Matthew Josephson's, The Robber Barons in that for all their insights, all you come away thinking after reading them, is thank God I did not live between 1877 and 1900.

2. Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick (1868).  Classic pull-yourself-up-from-the-boot-straps stuff. The poor are poor because they deserve to be. One has to work to succeed, as it should be. Perseverance, thrift, and constant improvement are the themes. Alger's success as a single theme writer demonstrates the power of that theme during this period.

3. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888). I know, another less than surprising pick. Bellamy uses fiction to depict a futuristic utopian society. I did not find this particularly good fiction and the romance scenes were clumsy at best, but it inspired thousands of Americans to join "Bellamy Clubs" to advocate for deep political and social reform.

4. Andrew Carnegie, "Wealth" (1889). In this article he wrote for the North American Review, Carnegie argues that the wealthy are the trustees of the national wealth who have an obligation to provide an example of good living to the population, and should use their wealth to provide opportunity, or "build ladders," as he phrases it, for the poor. He also argues on the positive nature of the economy and how driving prices ever lower is good for the consumer. Social Darwinism creeps into this essay, when he declares that while the economic systems of the time might be harsh for the individual, it is beneficial for the race.

5. The Diary and Letters of Rutherford B. Hayes (online edition ). Although Hayes is not regarded as one of the greatest luminaries of our nation's highest office, he left an extensive diary that offers insights into the role of the presidency during the Gilded Age, including some important events, such as the massive railroad strike of 1877.

6. Francis Parkman, "The Woman Question" in the North American Review (1879). Wonder why it took so long for women to gain the right to vote? Read this to understand the mindset of those who opposed it. Parkman declares women are unfit by nature because they are always sick. This is the height of gall coming from a hypochondiac who suffered from many maladies of his own (and quite possibly all psychosomatic in nature). Nonetheless, it is a good example of the anti-suffrage position written by an oterwise very intelligent man.

7. Josaih Strong, Our Country (1885). Nothing captures social Darwinist thinking as well as this work. Strong ties a trait to every race (all of the bad of course) and makes a case why they should not be admitted to the United States.

8. Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890). Riis, a Danish immigrant, lugged his bulky camera through the slums of New York City snapping photographs of the urban poor in their dingy tenements, at work, drinking, in the midst of crime, and other scenes that would have shocked the American middle class. The photographs dwarf the text and always make good discussion points in the classroom. This book should be paired with Stephen Crane's, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1896) for extra umph.

9. Mark Twain. Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). It is hard to pick out a Twain novel for this list, as they all have a claim. Not to mention that the era acquired its derogatory name from the title of one of his novels. I selected this one because the Gilded Age celebrated its inventors, and, in this work, Twain questions technological improvement. Even Bellamy sees technology as a positive force, but Twain is one of the first to question it, in his own unique way.

10. Mark Twain. "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895). In this North American Review article, Twain savagely mocks the literary style of America's first great novelist. I like Cooper (as I do Twain) and I still find this work to be hilariously funny. Yet, it captures the rebellious spirit of the naturalist and realist authors of the latter part of the Gilded Age.

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